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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 8, February 9, 2013

Women’s Victory: Justice Verma Committee Report and the Road Ahead

Friday 15 February 2013, by Pamela Philipose

If the gang-rape of a 23-year-old student—on a Delhi bus on December 16, 2012—led to a sense of both outrage over and despair about the entrenched violence women experience in India, the Report of the Justice Verma Committee —emerging exactly five weeks after that incident —came as a heartening glimmer of hope for reform and justice.

The response of women’s activists to the Report was unanimous: It was, potentially, a game-changer and transformed the manner in which the issue has been framed thus far. Remarked human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover: “It marks a major paradigm shift in the understanding of violence against women in the country. It is quite rightly termed a women’s bill of rights and roots violence firmly within the framework of inequality.”

Many of the arguments made in the Report had been voiced by the Indian women’s movement. Both Sudha Sundaraman, General Secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), and Suneeta Dhar, Director of the Women’s Resource Centre, Jagori, saw it as a reflection of the concerted work done over decades. Observed Sundaraman: “Women across the country have spoken out on this concern. Take just one issue we have fought against – the general refusal of the police to register cases and their overall gender insensitivity, which translates into the low conviction rate. We are, therefore, delighted that the Verma Committee Report lambasts the police for its failure to prevent such violence and makes the non-registration of FIRs (first information reports) a punitive offence.”

Dhar pointed out how women’s activists have routinely been portrayed in the most negative way—as home-breakers and Westernised harridans. “But what we were fighting for all along was really for our constitutional equality —something that has just been reiterated by the Verma Committee,” she says. She points to the systematic way in which women’s activists, academics and lawyers last year had suggested changes in The Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2012 and made representations to the Justice Verma Committee. They had argued that the violence women faced every day was part of a continuum, ranging from harassment to aggravated sexual assault and the close attention, and the Verma Committee seemed to have come around to that view.

The rising graph of crimes against women, perceived internationally as a blot against India, arouse out of a culture of impunity and apathy within the system. The Justice Verma Committee Report recognised this when it observed: “While we acknowledge and greatly applaud the concerns of feminists and various persons who have spoken in support of women, we still feel distressed to say that all organs of the State have, in varying degrees, failed to fulfil the promise of equality in favour of women.”

It was the language the Report adopted that made it unique, according to Farah Naqvi, women’s activist and member of the National Advisory Committee. To her mind it was one of the most progressive reports to emanate from the government system. “It sees the crime of rape and sexual assault, not as driven by lust, but as part of an exercise of power and control. The spotlight is on masculinity and the social construction of masculinity in India,” Naqvi said.

Nothing short of a thorough reform of the criminal justice system had been envisaged in the Report. Not only has it recommended the discontinuation of anachronistic and deeply offensive practices like the two-finger test, it has broadened the definition of sexual assault to include hitherto unrecognised crimes like stripping and stalking. Marital rape—a demand first raised by women activists in the eighties—was also deemed a crime for the first time.

The Justice Verma Committee also voiced the concern that “systematic or isolated sexual violence, in the process of Internal Security duties, is being legitimised by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which is in force in large parts of our country” and recommends wide-ranging measures to address this reality. This stance is of utmost significance given the tragic history of assaults on women by members of the armed forces. No justice has been done in the 1991 Kunan Poshpora incident in Kashmir’s Kupwara district, where 36 women were allegedly gang-raped by the 4 Raj Rifles. It is also difficult to forget the desperate protest that a group of Manipur women staged in 2004 against the alleged rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama by personnel of the Assam Rifles, when they stripped in front of the Kangla Fort in Manipur, holding up a banner that read, ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. As Sundaraman puts it, “Greater accountability from the armed forces has been a long standing demand and we are extremely reassured to learn that the Verma Committee has also taken note of it.”

Precisely because the Justice Verma Committee Report is a path-breaker there was disquiet over its silences. Asha Kowtal, General Secretary, All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, expressed some disappontment with the Report: “It held up hope of change so it is disappointing that dalit women again find that they don’t figure in the recommendations. We had hoped crimes against dalit women would figure in the section on aggravated sexual assault.”

Naqvi agreed this is a major oversight: “The absence of communal and caste violence as a category of aggravated sexual assault under Section 376, is very troubling.” Muralidharan, Assistant Convener, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, is similarly disappointed to find that sexual assault against physically or mentally disabled women has not been classified as an ‘aggravated sexual assault’, a crime that invites a more rigorous sentence.

There are other concerns, too. According to Grover, the use of the term ‘person’, with reference to the victim of rape, could camouflage the issue of violence against women. She says: “Victims should have been clearly disaggregated into categories of women, men and transgenders. This is important given the specificity and intensity of the violence that visits women. I also find it difficult to understand why the Report has made stalkers gender neutral when all evidence suggests that it is women who are stalked by men in India.”

The hope was that the UPA Government would take ownership of the Committee’s recommendations and translate them into law and policy. However, when the government did respond, it was by promulgating an Ordinance, which while adopting some of the recommen-dations of the Justice Verma Committee Report, steered clear of others and even brought in the death penalty despite that option having been firmly rejected by the Committee. As women’s activists pointed out, “All the recommendations that can actually strike at the heart of impunity—like marital rape and new provision for trying members of the armed forces for sexual violence under ordinary criminal law—have been dropped in the Ordinance.”

The Indian women’s movement has invested a great deal of thought and energy into ending the endemic violence against women in the country, an issue that had galvanised the nation after the Delhi gang-rape. Many women’s activists, including senior lawyers and academics, had made oral and written submissions to the Justice Verma Committee. Now they want a serious engagement with its recommendations, not hasty and politically expedient measures that could seriously undermine a crucial reformatory process.

(Courtesy: Women’s Feature Service)

The author, a senior journalist, is the Director, Women’s Feature Service, New Delhi.

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